Architect: Gil Hanse with Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford
7,044 Yards / Par-72
73.4 CR / 133 SL
Course Opened: 2002
Given my genesis in golf as a public course player I’ve had the good fortune in playing many of the finest available courses in America.
I would dare say no American course can surpass the affordable prices and top tier design elements Rustic Canyon so clearly provides.
The SoCal area experienced plenty of golf course construction during the go-go-go days of the 1990’s. Sad to say, with few exceptions, much of the design product that emerged was simply forgettable. The rush to create golf was simply to bolster various real estate deals with many of them tanking when The Great Recession hit with full force in ’07.
Rustic Canyon is ground zero from when architect Gil Hanse really began to emerge as a top tier talent. The property is enclosed in canyon land and there’s nearly 250 feet of elevation change although the land movement is not so onerous as to preclude people from walking the course if so desired and plenty do.
The main thing that excels Rustic Canyon is that while the fairways are quite generous — the key to scoring rests on getting into the best position so your approach angle can be maximized. Hanse doesn’t allow indifferent shotmaking. The player has to realize that big time rewards only come with flawless execution. If you want the gain — you have to realize the pain involved if your efforts don’t materialize. Rustic Canyon is not centered on a penal approach. It’s a mind game — thinking and executing go hand-in-hand when playing. Like the game of chess, Rustic Canyon is not about making a singular move but knowing how to link them together.
The par-5 1st starts the round and illustrates perfectly what I just mentioned. The hole slides to the right off the tee. Players can’t go too far right otherwise you can reach an environmentally sensitive area (ESA). OB pushes hard on the left side all the way. If players reach the fairway with sufficient distance the temptation to go for the green increases, however, Hanse doesn’t allow the hole to surrender simply to a long accurate tee shot.
The 2nd shot must avoid a pesky bunker ditch that runs parallel and the cuts directly in front of the green. Those bailing out left will encounter a very demanding pitch with the green running away from that side. Amazingly, when you stand on the tee you don’t get much of an impression on all the strategic calculations. After leaving the 1st green you are keenly aware that any low score will need to be earned by marrying brain and brawn together.
Hanse constantly keeps players off balance when playing. There’s no set pattern — no way players can hone in with just one style. Adjustments are the hallmark of any great course and Rustic provides that constantly.
The only downside for me is the back-to-back par-5’s at the 9th and 10th. The holes go in the same direction and are nearly identical in length. It seems to me Hanse needed to add some yardage to the experience and these two holes provided the means to do so. They are not bad holes — they are just not at the highest of strategic elements found with all the others.
On the inward half the land rises noticeably. The 11th is a solid long two-shot par-4 with a superb greensite — counter-balanced by a viperous short par-4 at the 12th that says “birdie” but can be just as quickly say “bogey” with anything less than purposeful play.
Along with the 1st the uphill par-5 13th is an exceptional hole. There’s a greenside bunker smack dab in front of the green and the putting surface features a boomerang shape that invites a quick three putt or more for those lacking sensibility with their stroke.
The final five holes at Rustic Canyon ratchet up matters considerably. The dog-leg left cape 14th hole dares the bold play off the tee but wise thinking can go a much further way. The uphill short 15th is a brilliant counterpoint hole with a three-tier putting surface. A birdie two can be had — but likely more bogeys will be the net result for the hapless player.
I see the long par-4 16th as Rustic’s most demanding long par-4. You’re standing at the highest point on the property, the hole plunging downhill. OB patrols the entire right side and there’s an ESA area along the left. The fairway tapers down the longer the tee shot is hit. The green also falls off on the left and rear areas with any approach shot not flawlessly played. Just a fun hole to play because you know what is required and must be able to summon up the skills to pull it off.
The par-3 17th is quality short hole. The key is working the tee shot in a left-to-right manner so that you can more easily avoid the menacing waste area on the right.
The concluding hole at Rustic Canyon seems quite lackluster from the appearance when standing on the tee but it’s more of an illusion than reality. Tee shots need to get to the right side for the better approach angle. The green is one last effort from Hanse to insist upon a well-played approach. The putting surface has a devilish swale that easily repels shots not gauged correctly. When the pin is placed in the far left corner it takes nothing short of total command and top tier execution to land nearby.
Anyone who is in the SoCal area and calls himself or herself a golfer needs to play the course. Hats off to the Superintendent Jeff Hicks and his hard working staff. The turf is kept firm and fast and controlling one’s ball is always an item of concern when playing. Hanse has gone on to become one of the premier architects in all of golf but his effort at Rustic Canyon clearly shows what gifts he was able to do without overplaying his hand as is the custom of so many other architects today. Hanse used the site for maximum pay-off — you don’t see the inane and silly overreach that is all too common from architects who wish to make their mark and little realize that the mark made is badly done.
So much of golf today is expensive — especially in the greater Los Angeles area. Those able to take the time to trek just across the LA County line into Ventura County — will reap an experience you won’t soon forget.